Just five months into the £30 million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, and Croydon Council is already admitting that it will take longer than the promised two-year closure to complete the works.
With the main refurbishment contractor not due to start work for another six months, there’s a strong possibility, according to one former council engineer, that the Fairfield Halls will now not open until 2019.
That would be a political disaster for Tony Newman’s Labour group at the Town Hall, who will be expected to contest the May 2018 local elections on their record of “delivery” – so much so that they’ve recently spent thousands of pounds of public money redesigning the council’s logos and letterheadings to include the line, “Delivering for Croydon”, apparently used without irony.
The closure for the long-overdue refurbishment is already a disaster for the 150-or-so employees who were made redundant when the Fairfield Halls, which includes the Arnhem Gallery and Ashcroft Theatre, went “dark” in July on a council promise that the venues would re-open, fit for the 21st century, within two years.
Croydon’s premier arts and entertainments centre would be “better than the South Bank”, boasted the over-excited and unrealistic Newman when announcing the closure plans.
But a report to the council cabinet last week contained the first admission that the Fairfield Halls works are not proceeding to the tight schedule.
In an eight-page update delivered in the names of cabinet members Alison Butler and Timothy Godfrey and with no less than three “lead officers” at executive drector responsible – council CEO Jo Negrini, Paula Murray, the council’s “creative director”, and Colm Lacey, the director of development – the report contained a single line of text, buried deep towards the end of the paperwork:
“The indicative programme is as follows… Opening by end of 2018”.
A planning application is yet to be submitted to the council for approval, although with Councillor Butler’s husband, Paul Scott, as the chair of that committee, that would seem likely to be a formality. And, following a review by the Theatres’ Trust, there have been some significant changes to the refurbishment scheme having already, such as scrapping plans for two large lorry lifts at the back of house, largely on grounds of expense.
But there’s a growing possibility that even the slightest of further delays will mean that the Fairfield Halls risks missing its 2018 pantomime season – traditionally one of the biggest money-spinners for the venue.
That in itself could be a serious blow for the theatre operators which are bidding for the contract to run the venue, a process which was only started a few weeks ago and which is expected to be completed – according to the cabinet report – next May.
Despite the cabinet report confirming the delay to the building works, the scheme’s dedicated website, meanwhile, continues to claim that the project is “on track”.
But then, Croydon Council’s notion of “on time” and “on budget” – Westfield? Bernard Weatherill House? – is clearly some way removed from the real world.
David Wickens, a former engineer at Croydon Council with a career spent overseeing major construction and infrastructure projects, is more wary about the Fairfield Halls meeting its tight timetable.
Wickens told Inside Croydon that the council report’s “opening by end of 2018” could mean “no earlier than December 2018”. He is concerned that a project that has managed to slip by six months on its planned delivery date, having only started five months ago, could be further delayed yet.
“When the council considered options for refurbishing Fairfield there were two main options,” Wickens said. “The selected option was a full closure and a two-year refurbishment. This was the cheapest option but did mean redundancies of all the Fairfield staff. The alternative of a phased development and retention of staff was dismissed.
“I now see that within five-months of starting the two-year full closure has probably become a two-and-a-half-year full closure. That is a 25 per cent increase which no doubt has cost implications.
“This must call into question the approved business case and the redundancies.
“Let’s hope that the reopening is not further delayed but I read elsewhere in the report that detailed design and contracts are some way off. In fact, the report says that the main refurbishment contractor will not start until May 2017, so the prospects of them finishing such major work before the end of 2018 must already be questionable.”
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